La Rafle … shame … regret …?

Photos: The Yellow Star of David with the word Juif – Jew – There is a wonderful French movie showing here in France. The title is La Rafle which translates as either The Round-up or The Raid. La Rafle which was released in 600 movie theatres in France last Wednesday (March 10) recounts the terrible […]

Photos: The Yellow Star of David with the word Juif – Jew –

There is a wonderful French movie showing here in France. The title is La Rafle which translates as either The Round-up or The Raid.

La Rafle which was released in 600 movie theatres in France last Wednesday (March 10) recounts the terrible event in German-occupied France on the night of July 16/17 1942 when French police and gendarmes rounded up more than 13,000 Jews in Paris for deportation to the Nazis’ concentration camps in Poland.

To be exact, on that night, now known as La Rafle du Vél d’Hiv, 3,031 men, 5,802 women and 4,051 children were taken – a total of 12,884. (Reports on the numbers vary. Some historians give the number of Jews taken as 13,152, whereas most settle on ‘more than 12,000’, or ‘more than 13,000’.) None of the children survived the camps; they had gone straight into the gas chambers.

The Vél d’Hiv comes from Vélodrome d’Hiver – a cycle-track stadium in the 15th Arrondissement of Paris – where the Jews were driven, packed into Paris’s yellow and green public transport buses with the open platform at the rear. (Those yellow and green buses remained in use until the beginning of the 1970s I think and the Parisians, and foreign tourists too, loved standing on the rear platform on warm and sunny days. The ticket collector used to stand there too and at each halt he pulled a lever to signal to the driver when all passengers were on.) This you will see in old French films or documentaries of those years.)

Vélodrome d’Hiver means Cycle Track of Winter. It was demolished after the war.

The Jews were kept in the stadium for three days and nights. They had no food, no water and no toilet facilities. Then, they were driven in trucks to French-run and guarded transit camps close to Paris. From there, first the men were trucked to Gare d’Austerlitz (railroad station) to be packed into cattle wagons to be railroaded to the camps in Poland. Next, they took the mothers and then the children. Some of the children were under five years of age. I must just say that the Germans had given the French an order to round up 25,000 foreign-born Jews, but some police and gendarmes who knew about the scheduled round-up had warned Jews whom they knew to get out of Paris. The Jews, believing that only the men would be taken – that the Germans would also take women and children were unthinkable – most of those who had fled beforehand were men: This explains why fewer men than women and children were rounded up.

The French have treated the round-up before in movies, but as a secondary subject. This is the first time that an entire movie is dedicated to it. It was directed by a woman, Roselyne (Rose) Bosch who is herself not Jewish but her husband is. She treated this horrific event with tact and tenderness. At the time of writing this entry attendance figures for La Rafle are not yet available, but on the day that I went to see it, that particular cinema theatre was not full; in fact, there were few people. (FYI the most popular movie in France is Shutter Island with 1,638,859 viewers in the two weeks it has been showing here.)

Every character in Bosch’s film did exist and every incident did happen. The movie tells the story of the Weismann family; father, mother, two daughters and an 11-year-old son. The little boy was the only one of the five who survived: Jo Weismann is today, 68 years later, 79 years old. He was interviewed on a TV show and he broke down in tears several times speaking of Vél d’Hiv. He survived because he and another little boy had escaped from the camp (the camp of Beaune-la-Roland, and, as I said, French-run and guarded) where they’d been taken to await deportation.

The movie does not totally blame the French for Vél d’Hiv. France was occupied; the police were not autonomous; the Germans wanted the Jews out of the way; there were bad French yes – collaborators (collabos) – but there were also good French. Yes indeed. The American historian Robert Paxton in his 1972 Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 calculated that 2% of France’s adult population actively resisted the Germans; the rest chose to collaborate with the Nazis, some actively, others passively.

Those who had done so actively were dealt with after the war by those who had resisted. Yet it took the French until 1995 to admit that there was something about WW2 that they had to feel bad about. That year the newly-elected French president Jacques Chirac said in a speech: “Yes, the criminal madness of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state, everyone knows it. That day, France accomplished something irreparable.” The day he meant was the day of Vél d’Hiv. The Germans called it Operation Spring Wind.

It is a pity that only those who understand French will be able to see La Rafle at the moment. I understand that the Americans do not like to see dubbed movies or those with sub-titles, and therefore when a foreign movie is a success, Hollywood remakes it. This is probably what will happen to this movie too, and it will be a perfect vehicle for the Depps, Pitts, Cruises, Jolies etc etc of Hollywood.

There is just one thing wrong with this film: Adolf Hitler. I’ve never seen such a bad Hitler – bad like in too thin, too young, skin too smooth and altogether looking like a Hitler dummy in a fourth-rate waxworks. All that Rose Bosch had correct was the moustache, but a moustache does not make a Hitler.

You can see La Rafle’s web site here and the trailer here

This brings me to my murderer: Dr Marcel Petiot. On March 11, 1944, 66 years ago, his terrible killing spree came to light when neighbors called police to his town house at No. 27 Rue le Sueur, close to Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Three of his victims, a German-born Jewish couple and their seven-year-old son had decided to ‘buy’ his escape route from Paris on that day of Vél d’Hiv. They’d been undecided to go but when they heard that Jews were being rounded up they decided to accept Dr. Petiot’s kind offer to help them escape from the German Nazis and their French supporters, the collaborators.

This is what I write in my book Die in Paris about this couple and their little son on that day …

Thursday, July 16, three weeks later, Margaret (Greta) Kneller, Jewish, heard car doors slamming on the street below the small, second story apartment on Avenue du General Balfourier in the sixteenth arrondissement, she shared with Kurt, her husband and René, their seven-year-old son. She ran to the window, but before she reached it, she halted. She had heard voices; they were speaking in German. René sat on the floor, playing with cars. As if this was a play often rehearsed, she swept him up in her arms and ran from the apartment. She mounted the stairs three at a time and prayed that the woman who lived in the apartment on the floor above, Mademoiselle Roart, was home.

Christiane Roart, a middle-aged spinster, lived alone. She was
home. She was already standing at the door.

The two women, firm friends, had decided long before that should the Germans ever turn up, the Knellers would flee to Christiane’s apartment to hide.
Such a moment had come.

Greta, Christiane and René listened at the apartment’s door. They heard heavy footsteps ascend the stairs. They heard knocking at the Kneller’s door. It soon turned to hammering. René started to whimper. Greta picked him up and put a hand over his mouth. After a minute or two the hammering stopped and footsteps again descended the stairs. Next, they heard the voice of the building’s concierge. The woman was saying she had not seen Greta Kneller for some months. The footsteps started coming up the stairs again. The concierge had a key to each apartment, and the German-speaking men were telling her to shut up and unlock the Knellers’ door.
Ten very long minutes passed.

The Knellers’ door slammed.

The footsteps started to descend the stairs again; a car revved up and drove off.

Greta and Christiane waited a few minutes.

“I must phone Kurt,” said Greta.

He was at work. He promised to return home immediately.

Kurt and Greta had been thinking of fleeing France for more than a year, but they had kept on hoping that there would be some kind of miracle; one morning they would wake up to hear the Germans had gone in the night.

Greta told Christiane there would be no miracle. The time had come to flee.

Kurt agreed.

He knew something the two women did not. At that very moment, all over Paris, Jews were being rounded up en masse. The round-up had begun at 4am. Thousands of men, women and children were being grabbed from their homes, even grabbed off the streets, in the 9th, 10th, 11th, 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements. It was not the Germans doing it, but French police and gendarmes. The Jews were being taken to schools, cinemas, theatres and station houses. From there, in buses, packed in like farm animals, to an indoor bicycle-racing stadium: the Vélodrome d’Hiver.

The Cycle Racing Track of Winter.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

4 Responses

3-13-2010 at 13:55:44

A pretty dreadful time all round. I would like to see the film although my French is no longer good enough to cope with a complete movie in the language.

Hitler must have been young once!!!!!

7-8-2010 at 22:14:12

I just saw the film – it was the opening film for the Jerusalem Film Festival – and it was subtitled in both Hebrew and English. I hadn't realized that all of the incidents were true and that the main child character was a real person. I agree with you about the depiction of Hitler – cartoon-like. I don't know why they bothered. It detracted from an otherwise moving film.

7-9-2010 at 06:45:48


I am pleased to know that you have been able to learn something from my blog entry about the film – that the film is 100% true.

I hope that you will also find my book DIE IN PARIS interesting – it will be published in the fall in the States. I think that many will find the book interesting as few know of Dr.Petiot and how he killed within the framework of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews. I am currently in search of publishers for editions in other languages, and I've all along thought that there would certainly be an interest in the book in Israel.

11-29-2013 at 12:54:18

I am from the United States and I have watched this movie over and over again to get every single word caught. still in highschool, I saw this movie very moving and I agree with you because I referred this tragic story to my peers and they didn’t want to see it because it was not in English. Good movie though and I had not realized the story actually being true. Thank you for this info.

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